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Newark Mayor David Smith reacts after the unveiling of a plaque mounted to a rock and three birch trees in his honor at Lakeshore Park in Newark, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 1. 2011. Smith, is stepping down next week after 33 years in office. (Doug Duran/Staff

NEWARK -- David Smith had been mayor for almost 25 years when he was faced with his most daunting task: pulling the community together after the 2002 murder of a Newark transgender teen, Gwen Araujo.

The hate-crime slaying shocked the small city, as did accusations of intolerance and the firestorm of national controversy, with visits from celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, national media and followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps a hate-preaching pastor.

Smith and other city officials huddled with leaders of gay and transgender groups to ease tensions and heal community wounds. City officials also worked with an anti-discrimination group, Not in Newark, to strengthen city laws.

"We all held together and got through it with a willingness to roll up our sleeves and work on being inclusive and celebrating that," Smith said. "Out of a terrible tragedy came something that was beneficial to others. Today, we're a blended community because every neighborhood reflects that diversity."

The handling of that crisis is part of the legacy Smith leaves as he steps down after 33 years -- California's longest serving mayor and the nation's third-longest. But Smith said he would rather focus on the Newark Way -- his term for the team effort given by council members, staff and residents to improve the city.

"We work together to solve the challenges and celebrate the victories, and we don't care who gets the credit," he said. "It's part of what makes Newark so special. I've tried to cultivate that and I hope I was successful."

Smith, who did not seek re-election to a 17th two-year term this year, will call the City Council meeting to order Thursday, then hand the gavel over to his good friend Alan Nagy, who will become Newark's first new mayor since 1978.

"Officially, I'll no longer be mayor sometime before 8 p.m.," he said.

When he leaves office, Smith, 66, will have been mayor for 60 percent of the city's 55-year history and for exactly half his life.

When he first took office, Newark was a town offering its mostly white 30,000 residents inexpensive single-family houses and blue-collar jobs at industrial companies. The city had no hotels and barely anywhere to shop, Smith said.

"We had to lead the city through a transformation," he said.

He guided this city -- the 11th largest of Alameda County's 14 cities -- through many changes, including in its demographic makeup. Today, more than one-third of Newark's 42,573 residents are Latino and about one-quarter are Asian.

Traditional industry gave way to high-tech companies. The dot-com boom delivered a high-end hotel, The W Silicon Valley.

However, a few critics say the Newark Way stifled true debate and kept residents at a distance while the number of unanimous council votes piled up.

When Smith and his council allies moved municipal elections in the early '80s to odd years, the mayor said he wanted to align council elections with the race for the school board, but some residents questioned whether it was because traditionally voter turnout is lower in odd years.

"We do things sneakily here," said Richard Bensco, a frequent City Hall critic who ran for City Council and lost last month. "For the most part, this is not a very open town."

Smith said the criticism comes with the territory of a longtime mayor. "I think even that small group of critics knows that anything we've done, we've tried to do for all of our community," he said.

As he prepares to leave office, Smith's allies said his organizational skills and efficient, even-keeled style led to many accomplishments, such as the construction of the final phase of NewPark Mall, the city's first large-scale shopping center; the George Silliman Activity and Family Aquatic Center; Ohlone College's satellite Newark campus; and the Gateway office project in the 1990s, which housed Sun Microsystems for several years and today is a multitenant office park known as the Pacific Research Center.

"The list goes on and on," said Tom Cree, president of the Lake Area and Rosemont Residents Association. "You're talking about a mayor who has taken on a lot of projects, even in challenging times."

The Newark Way perhaps got its start back in Laurium, the tiny upper Michigan hamlet where Smith grew up in the 1950s. In 1968, he moved 2,200 miles west to Fremont, where he worked in the plastics division of Ethyl Corporation.

In 1974, he settled in Newark, where Nagy encouraged him to run for office after he said he got tired of Smith's complaining about the city's property tax rate.

Two years later, with Nagy as campaign manager, Smith ran for City Council and won. In March 1978, he became Newark's mayor.

Smith's wholesome personal style is best exemplified by his longtime catchphrase for encouragement, "Yowza!" -- which is printed on his business cards.

"He's kind of a folksy guy," Fremont Mayor Bob Wasserman said. "He was a -- I don't want to say country mayor -- but he enjoyed his city and helped his city enjoy itself."

At the end of the month, Smith also will retire from his position as executive director of the Ohlone College Foundation, the community college's fundraising arm.

"He's my partner in what we call thought movement," said Leta Stagnaro, an Ohlone official. "That's about creating change by asking people to look beyond the current way of thinking. I've really enjoyed bouncing ideas off of him."

Smith said his top priority now is to spend more time with his wife, Marsha, and their family. But, his friends have already begun chiding him for taking a Type-A approach to what should be his golden years.

"Most people don't have one bucket list," Nagy said, laughing. "Dave has written three."

As he embarks on checking off those lists, Smith recalls the recent advice of appropriately enough, another mayor -- Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark.

"Patrick said, 'All good things must end, Dave, but we're going to go on to wonderful things,' " Smith said.

"I've made that one of my mantras."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011.

Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.